Thursday, 1 July 2010

La Cambre Mode[s]: Fashion Visionaries


We hear a lot of comment about the stranglehold the big fashion conglomerates have on the fashion business across the globe, so it is encouraging that there are little pockets of resistance to their homogenising effects – and often in unexpected places.

Take La Cambre Mode[s], which will celebrate its 25th anniversary next year. Never heard of it? You are not alone, but it was founded on what might seem not-too fertile ground by a fashion education visionary, Francine Pairon, and is still going strong. Its history is a heartening and unlikely story of determination, belief and vision.

La Cambre Mode[s] remains today where it was originally set up – in Belgium. And if that seems pretty specialist, it gets more so. It was aimed at showing that French-speaking Belgian pupils living there could be as creative – if not more so – as their counterparts in other countries more readily associated with fashion experiments.

Because that was what La Cambre Mode[s] was all about. Its aim was to train young artists and designers in multi-disciplined approaches to fashion design that were not only multicultured, highly original and looking firmly to the future, but also about the culture of daily life and the business of fashion as an adjunct to good citizenship. With La Cambre Mode[s] we are clearly in a world a long way away in ideological terms from everyday couture-salon or high-street thinking. And perhaps it is no surprise that Francine Pairon came to fashion from a background in architecture or that her colleague and successor, Tony Delcampe, studied textile design.

Work at La Cambre Mode[s] has always been about experiment and is based on the discipline of starting the process of recasting fashion from a preoccupation with volumes and their relation to the body; the results are usually more sculptural than related to the fashion of any one time. Heavily intellectualised, it is about ideas more than practicality and its shows and graduates are cannily watched by fashion insiders who also value the outsider (watch the 2006 show here). I am sure that in some design team somewhere not too far away from you will be at least one product of this unusual place: Olivier Theyskens studied there and John Galliano has visited, attracted no doubt by the fact that this is an educational establishment that does not believe in taking the safe and predictable design route, preferring instead to find new values and options.

This is a place that should be much more central to fashion than it is in these over-commercialised days.

Tuesday, 29 June 2010

Paris: 7 Brilliant Brits at the Hotel Bristol

The dog days of summer have hit London with a vengeance and there is virtually nowhere in the centre of the city to find a cooling breeze. But it's still not as hot as Paris last weekend, when I co-hosted a reception at the Bristol, the French equivalent of Claridges and, like that cool and elegant restful place, the other hotel where I would love to live. Think how easy it would be to live in a fabulous hotel in either of the two most important cities in Europe: linen changed daily, room service 24/7, taxis always at the door and somebody always on tap to take in mail, parcels and, maybe, presents.

I thought of this on Saturday at the Bristol at the launch of 7 Brilliant Brits, a DVD showing the work of British menswear designers Richard James, Domingo Rodriguez, E Tautz, Oliver Spencer, Gieves and Hawkes, Baartman and Siegal and Hart Savile Row.

All the guests decamped into the garden to drink champagne – or pure, cool water – and eat delicious canapes such as macaroons with a foie gras stuffing or eggs stuffed with peppers and served on mini wooden platters, and tried to ignore the temperature. Life in fashion can sometimes be hell.

It seemed natural after all that to set off up Fauborg Saint-Honoré and hit the shops. My two male companions were in crazed must-have-it buying mood and egged each other on to buy … anything as long as it had a scary price tag, which meant everything, in fact. Respectively they bought a denim shirt and a pair of trainers (at a cost of over €700) and a pair of trainers and drop-crotch pants (close to €1000), all of which will be totally out of fashion in a very short time. Which is what being a fashion person is all about. I know what they both earn and I can tell you they cannot afford it, but we all know they will make themselves afford it.

And just in case you think I am being too holy let me say that before leaving Paris I visited my favourite bookshop and behaved just as dumbly, buying three expensive books I neither need nor can afford.

Self-indulgence is in the blood with fashion people.

Monday, 28 June 2010

Menswear in Paris 2010

Two swelteringly hot days in Paris, but well worth the discomfort, including sweat trickling down the neck. I was there to do Fashion Fringe @ Covent Garden business, which went very well, but I also managed to see two shows in between. And they made me realise how much I have been missing by not going to the menswear shows now that the Sunday Times no longer covers them.

First up was John Galliano. Entirely briiliant both as clothes and as spectacle. The theme was silent movies and in particular Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin. The show began with a mighty rushing wind and copies of the newspaper Galliano Gazette swirling across the runway to set the mood of poor urban life when the movies were the only escape from work and poverty for most of the working classes in the early years of the last century.

Out of the mist rose a vast clock (shades of Harold Lloyd), then came a Chaplin lookalike and we were off into a jerky, high-energy show with the models tumbling out onto the runway and dashing down it at fantastic speed. Chalk white faces, huge Caplinesque boots, top hats and moustaches which changed into an hommage to Monsieur Houlot and his famous cinematic holiday sur la plage. It was all rollicking good fun and raised our thoughts well up and away from the unbelievable heat in the venue.

And, apart from that, the clothes....? A brilliantly young and accessible wardrobe, sexy and able to be deconstructed into a range of looks that any guy would like even if fashion isn't his main concern in life.

It was obviously a hard act to follow but Kris Van Assche for Dior Homme was up to the challenge the day after in a venue even more torrid thn the Galliano one – which had a very senior lady of the press complaining birtterly and at some length about her discomfort. Most of us rose above the temperature and were delighted at how convincingly Van Assche has made Dior Homme his own after stepping into the space left by Hedi Slimane when he parted company with Dior. Minimalist, urbane and full of simple but telling details that made a statement as subtle as the very best (I am thinking of the sadly missed Jil Sander, the total mistress of the perfectly conceived and tailored garment that commands attention in whispers).

Van Assche has the same perfect pitch.

Monday, 14 June 2010

Margiela, Couture and the High Street

Popping in to see the Maison Martin Margiela show again a couple of days ago, I was even more impressed with its independence and boldness and yet made sad wondering for how long the honesty and originality of the founder's vision will be able to hold put against big business thinking now that he has moved out of the company he founded in 1989. It is now owned by Diesel. Already key figures, unable to reconcile the aesthetic of Diesel with the sensibility of Margiela, have moved on. And that makes me wonder if independence in fashion is doomed to go the same way it has in so many other areas of life. Is the whole world doomed to become one vast shopping mall, hypermarket or supermarket, where standardisation hides behind a facade of variety and individual choice whilst in reality every one is expected to conform to a powerful Big Brother aesthetic? Is fashion going to end up as bland as the perfectly shaped supermarket apple, with all idiosyncrasies and individuality ruthlessly excluded by the style police?

And then my feelings were lifted by the thought of couture, which I will soon see again in Paris. Having been dismissed as irrelevant for so many years, it has made a sort of comeback, although with no obvious direct impact on the fashion thinking of the millions who turn to high-street chains for the latest look. But its influence is very much there. The high street looks for ideas to couture level and always homes in on the extremists like Galliano at Dior or Gaultier, the ones who are given the opportunity to allow their imaginations to run more or less untrammelled by thoughts of economy.

For me, couture is still the wellspring, the source, of true fashion originality where the eternal verities of fashion – perfection, beauty and aesthetic subtlety (or high drama or outrageous humour) – are kept alive in a way that is impossible in most ready-to-wear, conceived to sell at a certain price and to a very targeted market. As the global depression continues - as it must until the great economies find new ways of generating wealth in the face of the collapse of the old – it seems to me that current fashion must change its ground and take on board at least some of the attitudes that are taken for granted at couture level.

Thursday, 10 June 2010

Ara Gallant, Forgotten Genius

Photo from Damianieditore.com

Even fashion followers who were around in new York in the seventies have probably forgotten Ara Gallant, one of the great movers and shakers of fashion at the time. That is why I was so pleased to discover a book about him (Ara Gallant by David Wills, published by Damiani) only recently available in London. He was a bit of an insider's secret even in his heyday but was known as a genius by everyone in New York who knew and cared about fashion, from Diana Vreeland and Richard Avedon to every model in town, all of whom wanted to work with him.

Those were incredibly heady days in New York, the brief period when it was the hippest, coolest and most outrageously exciting place in the world, a magnet that pulled in everybody looking for life at the extreme edge, dangerous, drug-soaked and gay as the proverbial gadfly. Its energy was almost palpable. How, I don't know, because no one ever seemed to sleep and appeared to live for days on nothing other than cocaine.

This was before Mayor Giuliani decided to clean up the city and banish sin in order to make Saturday nights in Manhattan safe for Lutheran families in town from Arkansas, and the Village non-threatening for groups of Boy Scouts from Boisie. Sadly he succeeded in closing down the topless clubs, banished bottomless waiters, banned sleezy strip joints, shuttered the hustler bars – and destroyed New York as a leader in anything, a sorry state it is still in today.

Because, of course, beneath the sin and silliness, the city was bursting with a creativity more vibrant than anything else on earth and, as everyone knows, great cities that lead the world always need sin – and sexual sin at that. Think of Paris in the Belle Epoch or Berlin in the twenties…. Ara, as the greatest hairdresser of them all, once described as a 'fashion holy', was in the thick of it, working almost exclusively for Vogue with Avedon and the superwomen who were models on an altogether different plane from the bourgeois constructs known as supermodels who came later. These were women like Anjelica Huston, Veruschka and Apollonia van Ravenstein, whose energy, sytyle and sense of high drama – they were all larger than life and loved acting – energised the pages of the magazines in a way almost unimaginable with today's suburban teenage models. And the hair Ara sculpted for them was always so extraordinary that it ensured that it was the woman who dominated the shot.

Towards the end of his brief, drug-dominated life (he put a pistol to his head in 1990), Ara became a photographer, doing covers for Interview and L'Uomo Vogue and portraits of stars like Jack Nicholson, Margaux Hemingway and Diane von Furstenburg. But, in reality, he was the star, a creative leader acknowledged by people of the calibre of Andy Warhol and Lauren Hutton as a true original who inspired and motivated everyone he worked with. I am glad this book has saved him from oblivion.

Wednesday, 9 June 2010

Carnaby Street – Not What It Used To Be

I live right next to one of London's most iconic streets, known around the world as one of the great symbols of the Swinging Sixties, the period that changed not only Britain but the world. It was the street that said, 'This is London; this is now; and youth is in charge in a new classless society.' It didn't quite live up to its hopes - what ever does? - but it certainly changed the face of British fashion from deference to defiance, becoming the home of young, fun, but not very skillfully made clothes for teenagers of both sexes who were hands-on in forming the fashion and changing it with lightning speed when bored.

And that was Carnaby Street in 1960, when it developed from a louche but formless area of mixed and uncommitted social outsiders to a mecca for young male fashion followers, just as King's Road in Chelsea was initially doing for women, although each sex later joined the other to make the two streets the twin axes of cool fashion for the world.

Soho, where Carnaby Street is, has always been a male area, enjoying its notoriety as a place of brothels and its fame as a haven of acceptance and tolerance for all the byways of social nonconformity, skills and craftsmanship, as it still is today. But go back a century or so and we find that it was also a place where cultural giants lived happily. When I walk out of my front door I am very conscious that William Blake, Canova and Handel were just some of the great figures who lived less than a dozen steps from where I do now.

In 1960, Carnaby Street had a jack-the-lad confidence, even cockiness, as the first place in London to be working class in everything it stood for and yet having a universal appeal. It was also first to take menswear away from the grandeur of Savile Row and create its own look, initially aimed at gays but soon spreading its influence over all mens - and womens – wear.

This summer Carnaby Street is celebrating the 50th anniversary of its founding and especially its first ten amazing years as a valhalla for youth, freedom and nonconformity; the place where for the first time youth was in charge, the new buzz word was 'gear', and every young guy wanted it. We have had jazz bands, an exhibition and a good illustrated book (Carnaby Street 1960-2010) but nothing that can raise the creative temperature of Carnaby Street to anything that might represent life, let alone the pulsating energy of its brief past as a fashion crucible. Now Carnaby Street is all about cheap conformity with an emphasis on cheap jeans, T-shirts and trainers and is full of tourists hooked on a name long dead in real terms and really barely knowing what has drawn them there.

Carnaby Street now is famous for nothing more dynamic than once being famous. Sad really, I avoid it as much as I can, although it is less than two minutes' walk from my home. AS The Jam sang in 1977, 'Carnaby Street, Carnaby Street, Not what it used to be'. Even less so today, I'm afraid.

Tuesday, 8 June 2010

Fashion Fringe finalists; forum with John Galliano, Amanda Harlech and Nick Knight

So the launch party for Fashion Fringe @ Covent Garden came and went – and went off extremely well last Friday, on the first really hot night we have had in London this summer. The proceedings, held at the St Martin's Lane Hotel, began with a forum to discuss the question of the coexistence of creativity and commerce in fashion. To debate the pros and cons we had Nick Knight, Amanda Harlech and, of course, John Galliano, our chair for the next two years. Even though the air conditioning was on the blink (it was supplemented by lots of fans) the comments were lively and there were many questions and comments from the floor – which I always see as a good indication of how things are going. Everything was streamed live and lots in the audience were busy tweeting, which pleased me very much. We are still correlating all the hits etc but I gather we were quite a topic last Friday

Yesterday's Evening Standard had a great picture and a very positive piece about the second part of the evening, which was the all-important announcement of John's choice of the three finalists at our party at The Ivy Club, complete with specially created cocktails and fabulous things to eat.

Although those of us who work on Fashion Fringe – including the pre-selectors – didn't have any say in the final selection this year we did make our own unofficial choice … and we came up with exactly the same three as John. A good omen, I would think. They were Alice Palmer, Corrie Nielsen and Jade Kang. Although they richly deserved to reach the final, I have to say that this time the field was really strong - and that is not just a cliche to please those who were not selected. We saw some very impressive talent this year and, as always, it made me sad that we do not have the funds to be able to help more people. Every year I feel this, of course, and it is mainly because in a fashion field that seems contented to produce endless simple little dresses I know there is so much more diversity and originality than one would ever imagine at fashion weeks or by looking in the shops.

So now we start our mentoring program for the winners and help them to get their collections ready for the show in September during London Fashion Week.

Thursday, 3 June 2010

London: St Martins graduate show, Maison Martin Margiela exhibition


This has been a good week for fashion in London.

Central St Martin's held their graduate fashion show and, as always, it was zany, impossibly over-imaginative and the greatest fun. But this time it was more. As the wild and wacky clothes (concoctions might be a better word) came down the runway, our spirits lifted as we were taken away from thoughts of the lashing rain outside into a world of pure Dada, with wit and challenge put well before any suggestions of practical wearability.

Exactly as it should be at this level… and a timely reminder that there is more to fashion than creating clothes for high-street chains – an approach currently too prevalent in MA courses. The results of this approach are currently being seen across young London designer fashion, which is awash with dumb little frocks and nothing much more. In my opinion, London designers are being encouraged to be over-commercial in the hope of receiving sponsorship and it is killing what this city's fashion should be about. The honest figures for sales of young designers' work are low and their hopes of survival very problematic in many cases. But at least we have St Martin's BA course to give us hope. What I want to know is why all this exuberant creativity so often evaporates on so many MA courses.

No evaporation of challenge and excitement in the Maison Margiela exhibition that opened last night at Somerset House. This is a fashion house that has remained a trailblazer for over twenty years, forcing us to ask all the questions that matter in fashion. What can fashion be? Why do we have fashion? How bold can it be without leaving people behind? Is a place for intellect in this form of creativity?

The extreme originality and bold risk-taking in this company's DNA answers them all with total conviction. I would like to think that the team at Maison Martin Margiela start every day with the basic question, 'Why are we doing this and for whom?' Every time they sit down to design they give form to ideas that take us on an intellectual and spiritual journey that lifts clothing to a level far above the London norm, a journey that feeds our souls.

The exhibition should be seen by everyone who feels that fashion can be much more than merely selling a few tacky little dresses, and should be compulsory for everyone involved with MA fashion courses.

And, in case you are wondering, Mr Margiela did not show – at least, as far as all the guest were aware.

(Maison Martin Margiela The Exhibition continues at Somerset House until September 5th)

Tuesday, 1 June 2010

Fashion at the Time of Fascism: A New View

We all love a blockbuster exhibition, conceived as the last word, the definitive statement on a subject. We get them all the time as the major galleries and museums of the world - especially in New york and London- vie with each other to be the biggest, with the largest visitor figures and ticket takings.

But small can sometimes be beautiful, too, as we all know.

And London currently has an exhibition that ticks all the boxes – and at a fraction of the cost of most fashion-related exhibitions. Fashion at the Time of Fascism is based on a book with the same title. Both are a revelation. The book is the first English language examination of how fashion fared in Italy from the twenties, when the country came under under the control of Mussolini, to his downfall in 1943. The exhibition is a sophisticated developments of the book's points and even more strongly its illustration, most of which will be entirely new – and stimulatingly fresh – to most visitors in what is described as a pop-up display, clean and sharply focused to highlight this new ground. One of the most riveting aspects is the video of contemporary footage of fashion shows and the denizens of upper echelon Italians in this shameful period of Italian political life.

Well worth a visit – and entirely free.

The exhibition, in the Fashion Space Gallery of The London College of Fashion, John Princes Street, continues until June 17th but is not open on weekends,

(Fashion at the Time of Fascism: Italian Modernist Lifestyle 1922-1943 is published by Damiani.)

Fashion Photography - We Are All Voyeurs Now

Exposed, the new exhibition at Tate Modern, is subtitled "Voyeurism, Surveillance and the Camera". It examines the various ways in which our lives have been influenced and society changed by modern uses (many would say misuses) of the camera as the often-undetected eye spying on us with the full of approval of the governments elected with the mandate to protect our freedoms. Worryingly, we only occasionally feel unease at its ubiquity.

The exhibition and the accompanying catalogue are a powerful statement of the dangers of complacency and the impossibility of turning back the clock when the full implications of a situation are – too late – revealed.

But it is the section devoted to fashion that will most interest all but the most deeply political. The camera is now so enmeshed with fashion that the image of the garment is frequently more potent than the garment itself. In fact it is the first point of call on the path of buying that starts with each month's new magazines and their beguiling pages of slick, tightly focused pages advertising the seasons's must-have objects of desire. And we do not seem to become bored even by the fact that it is largely the same image in all the magazines.

Editorially, there is fractionally more visual variety – and this again, is about the image, as each desperate editor tries to find a new way of arresting the attention of the casual "flicker" at the newsstand, trying to decide which magazine to buy – or whether to even bother. And it is becoming increasingly difficult to force oneself to do so at this point in fashion, where the art of designing clothes has generally fallen so low that editors believe clothes can only interest us if they are worn by this month's fleeting celeb - catch her before the sun goes down or you've lost her for ever.

No wonder that aspects of femininity other than dress are being resorted to by frantic editors ordered to take desperate measures to keep the readers on board. What could be more postmodern (or weeping in the darkness of the night despairing) than to feature nudity on the cover and featured in the pages of a magazine published with the major purpose of selling clothes. You couldn't make it up, you might think, but you don't have to. It is here and now, on a newsstand near you.

But it gets worse – or rather has been worse for some time – with editorial of nude or seminude pictures of models debased and violated for the camera, with the clothes barely in evidence; if they are, almost certainly will be half torn away. Strange antics for magazines meant to make women feel good, confident and empowered. And if you think photographers, stylists and art editors have reached the point when some of them might well be ready for sectioning, I am sure you would not be alone. But, as the Tate exhibition reminds us, we are all voyeurs now – whether we want to be or not.

Wednesday, 26 May 2010

Isabella Blow: Why Make a Movie?



News yesterday that there is to be a film about Isabella Blow, the colourful stylist who died by her own hand three years ago, does not inspire confidence. The major excitement seems to be that John Galliano will play himself in the film, which seems to be the brainchild – if that isn't too strong an expression – of milliner Philip Treacy.

Oh dear.

Those of us who knew Isabella, worked with her and found much to empathise with in her life and to admire in her work cannot fail to be apprehensive when nobody as yet has considered it important to announce who will direct this enterprise. Or, indeed, why.

Isabella was a unique character who had many personae, ranging from the grandest of grand – seen only rarely – to the lowlife of London. In this and other respects, she always reminded me of Diana Vreeland. They were both instinctive, could talk with wit and memorable drama and could pluck the essence from cultural and historic moments about which their actual knowledge was hazy to say the least. Both had a filter which screened out the tedious or unnecessary facts and left them with the romantic nugget of gold for which they craved. What if they didn't know their Valois from their Viscontis? Who cared? They always knew what mattered.

Isabella had great zest for the funny, outrageous and shocking, daring herself to go further, to push beyond the limit every time. Her humour was frequently coarse and even cruel and her laugh Rabelasian. She adored extreme fashion, loved to be different and always managed to wear her mainly ludicrous hats with panache. Eccentric? of course not and she was rightly angered by suggestions that she was. Hers was a daily performance, calculated, clever and frequently inspired. Nothing was random or unconsidered. And that was her strength. She was a consummate performer. She needed her public … and she never let it down.

But I think we all knew that there was a terrible vulnerability and insecurity behind it all, something she could not hide. Her self-esteem could dip horribly low. She once summed up her professional life as a stylist as being on a par with working as a trolly-dolly taking food to the captain of the plane. Like a child who cannot grow up, she needed to shock, to draw attention to herself and yet she never wished to be discovered for her real self.

She surrounded herself with young designers, whose careers she promoted with more vigour than judgement in some cases, almost using them as a shield. Their names were a carapace that deflected criticism. Most obviously, she hid behind her costumes and her 'eccentricities', both of which were carefully calculated to obfuscate.

Lightweight and insubstantial as a shimmering dragonfly, Isabella was willful, unreliable and as changeable as the wind, dancing soley to her own inner music, never really heard by the rest of us except as a lingering fairy bell somewhere over the hills and far away. And now this fugitive, vulnerable creature is apparently about to be given 'the treatment', with at least two books rumoured to be coming out this autumn and now the film on the horizon.

Who needs any of them? Certainly not Isabella nor, I would have thought, the reading and film-going public. She should be left in peace, and those of us who have dear memories of her should be allowed to savour them as intensely personal things, to be shared only with those who will understand.

Isabella Blow was a pleasure for connoisseurs, not someone to be shamelessly paraded for the masses to deride.

How Male Fashion Changes

Talking to some menswear designers and models at a fashion shoot a couple of days ago took me back to when I ran shoots in the eighties. I was fashion editor of Country Life, at that time one of the great weekly publications, which covered fashion in a rather bemused way as if not quite knowing how it had slipped into its august pages. The editorial offices were a cabinet of eccentricities as each writer pursued his own obsessions with total disregard for anything else. How it was ever published on time I have no idea.

Fashion was a challenge, an alien … but I am pleased to say that I managed to get two fashion covers - unheard of at Country Life and the cause of much indignant snorting in the grander counties and quite a few cancelled subscriptions. But we stuck to or guns until probably the least suitable editor in the history of magazines took over and destroyed the aesthetic of a unique publication, making it as bourgeois as any other magazine. Country Life never recovered. She retired abroad but the damage she had done was absolute.

One battle I did not win, even in a magazine with a much bigger male than female readership, was featuring menswear. 'Absolutely not us,' I was told. And in many respects the situation hasn't improved much in any publications except men's magazines desperate to keep going by raking in the men's fashion ads that only come if the editorial pages are already there. And in a way I could see why, looking at the clothes being photographed at the shoot.

Nothing seems to kill the strength of male clothing more quickly than overemphatic design. Subtlety is all. Nothing must ever look 'fashion'. So men's fashion change comes not from the clothes but from how they are worn. Teenage boys took the cheap Calvin Klein trick of showing their cool by exposing the waistband of their underpants and changed it by pulling their jeans so low on their bums that only a ludicrous crablike walk keeps them on at all. And we have the nerve to call women fashion victims.

In fact, as that exponent of uber-cool style, Tom Ford, has shown, the secret is to take existing elements, exaggerate some and diminish others and then never change anything. Then you have a style for life – just as all those rangy old aristocrats who loved Country Life did. Even today, thousands of men want to dress like a lord in the thirties. No modern fashionable woman wants to look like his wife, Her Ladyship, from the same period.

Maybe that is why, in the main, male fashion is still so unchallenging.

Monday, 24 May 2010

Fashion Fringe @ Covent Garden update

We're getting toward the business end of the FF@CG process. We've just been through what I've heard referred to as the weeding out process of this year's applicants. I hate that expression. There are no weeds in the creative world – although admittedly, they can't all be peonies (John Galliano's favourite flower), because not everyone can be the tops. But I refuse to accept that there are any real duds at this level.

I only sat in on the event, taking no real part except to offer the occasional biscuit (this was a very British occasion and as all Brits know cannot be decently concluded without a few biscuits). The process of actual selection was in very capable hands. Angela Quaintrell, doyenne of fashion merchandising in London, is the woman who single-handedly made Liberty a major fashion player and a firm supporter of all manner of young hopefuls, all of whom receive sage advice born of years of experience. Professor Roy Peach, dean of the graduate school at The London College of Fashion, also has great experience, having been a designer, trained at the Royal College, and now one of the most respected fashion academics in the country.

Both have that rare ability to understand what is good even when it is not to their personal taste – an objectivity lacking in the totally subjective assessments made in this city by people with not an iota of the knowledge of these two. The task was to reduce the field – very large this year – to the finalists whose work was couriered the next day to Paris to our judge John Galliano and his team to decide on the ten semi-finalists – which they are doing even as I write.

When we were having our breaks – much needed with such a high concentration business (more tea and biscuits) – Roy and Angela were talking about the pitfalls that so often catch out young designers. For example, drawings and fabrics that can't work together, because the fabric can't do the things the drawing assumes. As they said, sharp shapes and soft fabrics never work, no matter how good they look in a sketch. They both felt that digital prints had had their day in all but the most skilled hands because they look so flat and lifeless. The same with engineered as opposed to free-form fashion drawings. Again, so dead and giving no scope for the freedom of the hand gesture that has been the essence of drawing since prehistoric humans first daubed a line on a rock face.

One of the competitors quoted Dali on his application, however, and we all heartily agreed. Dali said, "The world needs more fantasy. Our civilization is too mechanical." So say all of us – and until young designers realise this, they and fashion are going nowhere very far, in my opinion.

I can't wait to learn John's ten finalists.

www.colinmcdowell.com
www.assarahseesit.com

Wednesday, 19 May 2010

Graduate Fashion Shows: What's Gone Wrong?:

The Spanish film director Luis Buñuel once said that "The opinion of the audience is conformity", by which I suspect he meant that we all like what we know. That's why virtually every TV drama has the same plot with only the regional setting and accents showing any variety. It's also why Oxford Street and every high street in the land are full of clothes which, if not actually identical, are all the same in thought. Of course, this is built into the fashion system. There has always been THE fashion of any one time since Marie Antoinette at Versailles, where the morning's look was totally passé by the afternoon as the quixotic queen changed her mind and her clothes and everyone was forced to follow.

But originality comes from queens no longer. Instead, it stems from two sources: the young and bold with nothing to lose; and the successful and powerful with all the money behind them to enable risks to be taken. On the one hand, students and young designers; on the other, the likes of Miuccia Prada, John Galliano and Marc Jacobs.

The big names can look after themselves. The people I am thinking about here are the graduates leaving college this summer. They are just finalising their collections and the invitations to attend the college shows are arriving on the desks of fashion journalists and buyers about now.

How many will attend? Very few.

Why is that, in people who should be eager to seek out new talent at every opportunity?

Once bitten, twice shy, I'm afraid. Most of us working in the business know that most of what comes down the runways at Graduate Fashion Week or in independent college shows will have a deadly conformity and be little more than warmed-over versions of the big idea of the fashion darling(s) of last season – which has probably already been fully exploited by mass manufacturers.

How does this happen? Mainly because so many – but by no means all – fashion departments in art colleges are staffed by second-hand roses: ex-designers, failed PR people and journalists who rarely go to the top fashion shows or have any conversation with the major designers. So, their sources of information are the same as those available to their students: magazines, dvds and gossip. They are not insiders. If they work north of Watford or south of Guildford, they probably don't get invited to press days or presentations – and almost certainly couldn't afford the time to attend if they were (academics are worked like dogs these days). No wonder they so often fail to stimulate boldness in their students and accept the conformity that Buñuel so disliked; the conformity that, sadly, gets their graduates the job in the current conformist fashion world.

It is time for a long overdue root-and-branch rethink, it seems to me.

High Style at Brooklyn Museum Costume Collection

The Costume Collection of the Brooklyn Museum is, I believe, unique in that it was set up (in 1903) specifically to provide inspiration for America's fashion industry by allowing visitors to study the very best of world fashion. It is a great collection but does not get the praise it deserves because, well … it's in Brooklyn (as the name suggests), rather than Manhattan.

So it is great news that the museum has joined forces with the Metropolitan Museum of Art – which is in Manhattan – in a joint show that goes on until August 15 in both venues. "American Women: Fashioning an Identity" is at the Metropolitan; "American High Style: Fashioning a National Collection" is in Brooklyn. And it is the second one I want to draw attention to, as the Metropolitan will get plenty of visitors because of its location and also because of the high esteem in which its fashion exhibitions have been held ever since the days of Diana Vreeland in the seventies.

What makes the Brooklyn collection unique? Well, it has always had a collecting policy that comes at the whole question of what clothing is worthy of preservation from a pleasingly oblique angle. That means that, along with all the big names like Vionnet, Schiaparelli and Dior, are lesser-known ones whose importance is absolute in historic terms but whose names have slipped below the radar a little. So, in American terms, think Bonnie Cashin, Mainbocher or Elizabeth Hawes; in world terms think Callot Soeurs, Yantorny or the Fontana sisters. Also, how many of us have had the chance to see the clothes of Arnold Scaasi, Geoffrey Beene or James Galanos? Acquainting oneself with these people is worth the visit alone.

But the great glory of the Brooklyn Museum is its unique collection of the work of Charles James, the irascible Anglo-American designer who in his lifetime was seen by many as technically superior to Christian Dior and certainly the equal of Cristobal Balenciaga – a judgement James would have grudgingly agreed with. The other great strength of Brooklyn's collection is Elsa Schiaparelli, who is well represented and who, along with James and Worth, is central to the show.

Try to get there, but if you can't, you can buy the supporting book, High Style – beautifully produced by Yale to their usual high standards.


Charles James gown and stole from the Brooklyn Museum (pic: NY Times)

Singapore Fashion Festival, DSquared, Henry Holland, Robert Cavalli, Carmen Kass, DSquared, Vivienne Westwood

Someone sent me a link to Henry Holland's blog on style.com about his visit to the Singapore Fashion Festival. I'm pleased that the reaction to this year's festival has been very positive.

I thought it would be, I have to say. It's my job to choose and bring international designers to Singapore, and I knew we had a strong team. The first up were Dean and Dan of DSquared, who were a lot of fun and gave us a great show. Carmen Kass, their star model, received a hysterical reception – well deserved,

Henry Holland was … Henry. Full of practised charm, he was a great hit in the clubs where he deejayed.

The climax was Roberto Cavalli's show, which was part A/W 2010 and then ended with a bang as his greatest evening gowns over the years, as chosen by his wife and chief designer Eva, brought the night to a close. But not quite. The actual climax came when I presented Roberto with the Singapore Fashion Festival Visionary Fashion Award, which last year went to Vivienne Westwood.

I am already working on next year's event.

Monday, 17 May 2010

Thoughts on Fur

I have just written a short piece for British Elle about fur in fashion and it has made me start to think (again) about the question of fashion morality – or, as some might think, the lack of it.

A few weeks ago, the popular press was shocked to learn that padded bras and 4-inch heels were being pushed as suitable dress for sub-teen girls. Fashion haters – and there are a lot of them – immediately climbed to their self-created moral high ground, whilst the fashion lovers crassly pointed out that little girls love clumping around in mummy's shoes whilst wearing lipstick. Where's the harm in that? they asked, with that true fashionista lack of ability to think clearly. But most people who are not haters or lovers were able to separate the significance of doing so in mummy's bedroom or the living room from going to school or even a party in heels and a padded bra.

But of course it is the majority – neither fashion haters nor lovers – who are to blame. All those people who sit in front of TV whilst children ape grown-up emotions – love, loss, despair – whilst singing songs the words of which should mean nothing to them, coached and exposed by entertainment entrepreneurs who are interested only in money … and innocence be damned.

Back to fur. Is there anything more sensuous to the touch than mink or, even more so, sable? What is softer than chinchilla, even though it is the fur of the ubiquitous rabbit and in no way exotic? But it isn't the feel of fur that we should be thinking of, but the way it gets to us. As we all know, animals must be killed and then flayed for the process to begin. And, as we sit on our sofas stroking our cats, we need to remember that when we send in an on-line order for a fur trimmed dress.

The same is true of feathers, foisted onto the gullible as the new fur – and without the cruelty. How do we think they are obtained, for God's sake? From a live creature, perhaps, but in most cases from a dead one.

We are very partial in our attitudes to animals. We stop the traffic for new-born ducklings to cross the road. We coo over baby lambs although in both cases we know unless we are very stupid that they will be killed and served up on our tables eventually. We also know how inhumanely they are killed - and some of us remember that even ducks and lambs know fear and pain. And so do rats and mice. But for them we are ready with our double standards immediately. They are vermin, so anything goes. And who would wear a rat-skin trimmed coat? And yet why not? Only, I suspect because the Simon Cowells of the fashion world – and they are there – have yet to find a way to make them palatable to us.

www.colinmcdowell.com
www.assarahseesit.com

Monday, 3 May 2010

Singapore Fashion Festival: Fashion Asia, all dressed up, Henry Holland

A stimulating day started with a breath of fresh air blown in from Pakistan. Four very different talents under the umbrella title of Fashion Asia came together to show in Singapore. They made me realise yet again how vibrant and original clothes from this part of the world can be when they are not too linked to a stereotype of a national costume. They are absolutely not to be compared with the tired western copies put out by designers who have had an exotic holiday somewhere, and return with surface ideas they've nicked. The point such western designers so often miss is that, just as in the west, good eastern fashion is based on a philosophy of life, not a few pretty primary colours and some beading.

After all, we are all conscious of the fact that all creativity stems from a culture – and often a mix of more than one. In fact, the clothes shown by Maheen Khan, Shamaeel Ansari, Deepak Perwani, and Nomi Ansari with Fashion Asia were far too sophisticated to have the tag of ethnic stuck on them. These were clothes that could fit in many sophisticated women's wardrobes. Not all; not every wardrobe; and probably not in their entirety – but, then, who ever buys a total wardrobe from one label, in any case?

The same is true of all dressed up, a collection of super-sophisticated big city looks created by Tina Tan Leo, famous in fashion for her shop The Link and possibly Asia's most powerful retailer. Like Joan Burstein, she is rightly acknowledged as fashion royalty. Her internationalism shone out in this collection for its Audrey Hepburn minimalism and very cool colour palette … although there were a few wavy numbers and lumpy embroidery in the middle that I could have done without.

And then there was Henry Holland. What does one say about Henry, the cheeky little robin of London fashion, except that his one-stop, one-size-fits-all approach went down a storm with cool young Singaporeans. Likewise his "spinning' at a club later, well into the night.

Singapore Fashion Festival: Musings on Class

Every time I return to Singapore – on average, twice a year – I am impressed with yet more new buildings, more new top international names in the already exceedingly sophisticated and swanky shopping malls and even more sophisticated places to eat some of the very best and most refined food in the world. This is a totally modern and virtually new-build city that lives on air conditioning and the privileges associated with extreme wealth. So I was amused to notice yesterday a car with a slogan in its window that read 'This car runs on … money!' It seemed a nicely ironic corrective to all the high spending and a gentle reminder that, as in other wealthy international cities, the privileges are for … well, the privileged.

I was reminded of an exhibition I saw last year in Sunderland, in the north of England. It was called Rank and demonstrated how English society had developed as a cohesive policy based on the assumption that everybody had a place in society and should largely remain there. A complex system of checks and balances was evolved to keep them there. But the exhibition showed most clearly that there are no pre-ordained slots if people believe in their worth and are prepared to fight for their place. The exhibition was an engrossing survey of values and beliefs fought for but, just in case it was a little too serious and heavy breathing about individual freedoms and the fight to preserve them, it had a nicely ironic sting in the tail, with car stickers available at the exit reading 'I love Inequality'.

Only for the brave and I didn't stick one in my window, I'm afraid.

All of which makes me think of fashion's split personality as it tries on one hand to keep its distance and create an aura of exclusivity while at the same time breaking its neck trying to find new ways of pulling more dedicated followers into its world. Can a universal force retain any exclusivity apart from that imposed by cost or should fashion, like sport, just accept that making money and being exclusive simply do not tally in these high turn-over times where demand for the ephemeral has never been easier to activate? A couple of top models, a few celeb friends (preferably from the music business) and you are in business as a designer. Or is it rather more complicated than that makes it seem?

Saturday, 1 May 2010

Singapore Fashion Week: Men in (Scruffy) Shorts

Someone once said that if you sit in a hotel lobby long enough, everyone you ever knew will pass by. I don't know about that but I do know that any hotel lobby will give you an instant snapshot of how fashion is actually worn by all the myriad shapes and sizes of men and women who are so far removed from the designer's idealised dreams – and that includes the swanky, expensive people too.

And it is quite a shock.

I thought about this sitting in the lobby of the St Regis in Singapore waiting for Roberto Cavalli, whose private jet had been delayed by bad weather. He and his show are the stars of this year's Singapore Audi Fashion Week at the grand final gala night on Sunday. It will be a high-glam occasion of course – how could it be anything else, featuring as it does Roberto's personal selection of great evening gowns from the past as well as his current collection?

What a contrast to what walked through the lobby in the short time I sat there.

Let me say immediately that, as you might expect, it is the men who are the most criminal offenders. We all accept that America did a lot to casualise men's dress and that it was something well overdue but sadly, the rest of the world – preeminently the Brits – have turned casual, non-status clothes into something so ugly that scruffy is not a strong enough word to describe it. Hideous shorts – and even more hideous legs – reinforce the old saying that men never dress to attract women but only to display a crude contempt and power to other men. The result is that they have all the glamour of a hyena.

The sad thing is that, instead of fighting this movement, designers have followed it. But although their versions are better cut than the cheap ones most men wear (which are probably made under appalling labour conditions), they still flatter perhaps one in thirty men under thirty and nobody older.

I had hoped for some visual respite in London this winter as it was very cold and all normal adults would have changed into trousers. But it didn't happen. Men of all ages continued to dress as if they were postmen and wear shorts even in the snow. I can't help hoping that the cold effects their sperm count so that this particular form of idiocy is eradicated by a process of natural selection.

Wednesday, 28 April 2010

Singapore Fashion Festival Gala: DSquared, Carmen Kass, Audi


Carmen Kass, the Estonian supermodel who has opened for more top fashion shows than I can begin to remember – it would be easier to list the very few, and not very important, designers she has not modelled for – is as beautiful off the catwalk as on (and I can tell you that that's not always the case). I was sitting with her and Dean and Dan Caten of DSquared at the Audi gala event that officially kicked off Singapore Fashion Festival last night.

As you would expect in this city of lots of money and quite a bit of class, it was an elegant affair but Carmen still shone. She did it by going for simplicity. In a room full of women in beautiful jewels she wore none. Likewise with hair – artfully simple. And for anyone who still thinks models are dumb (which is so 1990s, in any case), she impressed everyone with her shrewd business acumen in the property world of her homeland. Definitely not just a pretty face.

Dean and Dan are a complete team, yin and yang. Virtually interchangeable. The twins are so close that they claim they never go anywhere separately. They were in great form, entertaining us with their camped-up versions of what we all expect internationally famous fashion designers to be. They even managed to
outshine the two new models (vehicular, not fashion) presented during the evening (to an accompaniment of longing male sighs) by the sponsors, Audi.


For me, the highlight of the evening was helping judge The Star Creation competition to find talented young designers from across Asia. The standard was so high that we decided to give four prizes instead of three.

That's very encouraging for someone like me who believes that Asia has some genuine fashion talent and will soon be making it apparent to the rest of us.


Monday, 26 April 2010

Irving Penn, Fashion Photography and Fashion Illustration


I was thinking on the flight to Singapore about the Irving Penn exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery. It has had good reviews. Not that it is any surprise that we have yet another empty exercise in fashionable hagiography at that most shallow of any major gallery. It is entirely appropriate that Penn's portrait gallery of thinkers and creators from the late 1930s until his death would attract its directors. It is equally predictable that critics should feel the need to overpraise it. But, although Penn has left some of the most defining fashion and still-life images of his generation, it only requires a brief look at the portraits of Henri Cartier Bresson (whose work is on show currently at The Museum of Modern Art in New York) or Bill Brandt to realise that what we see at the NPG is portraits by a fashion photographer, not a great portrait photographer … and certainly not a great photographer per se.

It is because fashion is about surface that it is easy to understand. It has no interior monologue, as I remarked in an earlier blog about the new genre of "fashion film". That is why photographs that depict it are popular. But it is an approach that eventually palls. We all know how boring most fashion shoots can be. If we contrast them with the fashion illustrations that animated the pages of the cheap weeklies as well as the top monthlies for most of the 20th century, we see what has been lost. Inherent in the DNA of a brushstroke or a pencil mark is the character of whoever made it. Most fashion illustration of that period had personality because it was almost always drawn from life and was a portrait (admittedly very glamorized) of a woman as well as a garment. Today, fashion drawing - when you can find it - lacks animation because the artist rarely works from a model. What we get again is the feeling of looking at a flat surface rather than something rooted in a seen reality.

Friday, 23 April 2010

Dandies of Lowestoft




Look at these fantastically cocky young men. Out of the blue, I have learned about one of those fascinating historic byways that so easily get lost and forgotten. Not this time, however. I received a letter from Peter Wylie, an East Anglia native, about a research project he's doing with funding from the Arts Council of Great Britain.

Peter is documenting the remarkable off-duty dress of sailors in the fishing port of Lowestoft in the early sixties. He calls the project The Dockside Dandies of Lowestoft, although at the time the distinctive clothes were known as 'fisherboy coloured suits'. When the fishing boats came in after a time at sea the fisherboys (with pay packets bulging) would go to Lawrence Green, the town tailor, and try to outdo each other by ordering highly coloured bespoke suits to be made ready for their next return to port. Dressed in the latest suit, they paraded the town with all the pride and confidence of Beau Brummel strolling down Bond Street arm in arm with a friend, quizzing all the girls they passed.



The idea caught on and became a craze with young trawlermen, fresh out of school, putting down deposits and setting out to dazzle in their made-to-measure suits in strong colours such as red and purple, which were a little bit spiv, a little bit rocker, but totally one-off creations. Lapels were wide, jacket backs were pleated, contrasting piping and insets of material were the norm and bell-bottoms up to 30 inches wide were considered very cool. For all the OTT style and colour these clothes were in no sense effeminate. Just the opposite. They were a badge of masculinity because only fisherman were allowed to wear them and their gaudy self-confidence reflected the fact that their trade, a hard and dangerous one carried out in all weathers, ensured that nobody would cast aspersions on their manliness.

It is a fascinating piece of sartorial social history and I wonder how many other pockets of fashion originality are waiting for someone like Peter Wylie to uncover and document them before it is too late?


All photos © Peter Wylie

Wednesday, 21 April 2010

Singapore Fashion Festival: Henry Holland, DSquared and Roberto Cavalli

Pic source: vogue.com

Don't you just love Henry Holland's t-shirt? It made me laugh out loud (although of course there is more than a little truth behind it – I sometimes find myself praying for the future of fashion).

By the time you're reading this, I'll be on a plane on the way to Singapore, where I'm director of the Singapore Audi Fashion Festival, which starts this weekend. I'm looking forward to meeting Henry – and not just because of his t-shirt. Everyone tells me he is a charming, sharp and funny young man. And, of course, he also designs rather accomplished clothes.

Henry Holland is one of three labels I've invited to this year's festival. The other two are crazy Canadians Dean and Dan, whose label is DSquared, and Roberto Cavalli, who is celebrating 40 years in the fashion business – for most of which I have known and admired him. What I like is that we've brought together a young company with Henry and an established company with Dean and Dan, while with Roberto we have a designer who has followed his star despite the ups and downs of fashion change. Although he may be associated with bling, there's no doubt that Roberto Cavalli is now classic.

What's more, these guys are all great company in their very different ways (not always the case with designers) so I'm really looking forward to spending time with them. The ash cloud has caused a few anxious moments about getting designers, clothes and production teams in the right place at the right time, but everything has come together in the end.

For this week, at least, I won't have to pray for fashion – although you might forgive me praying a little that the ash doesn't come back.

Grace Kelly, Edith Head and the American Dream

In a comment on my blog on the Fashion Film, Random Fashion Coolness asks if it is possible to be too perfect. That started me thinking about Grace Kelly, who is being remembered at the moment with an exhibition at the V&A. Although we now know that her off-screen persona was not quite the same as her on screen image, nevertheless her image has survived as the sophisticated, always elegant and confident template of the fifties woman.

And of course it was a total fantasy – just like the pages of American Vogue on which her image was based. Unearthly perfection was the mood of rich middle America in those days, where people enjoyed kitchens and bathrooms of an undreamed of sophistication, and drove cars that were years in advance of those on this side of the Atlantic (I remember after driving one on an extended road trip in America, I picked up my own car – by no means an old boneshaker – at Heathrow and less than a mile later I stopped because I thought I had a flat tyre. I didn't. What I had was British car springs – light years behind those in America).

Grace Kelly and Edith Head. (Pic: Moderateinthemiddle.files.wordpress.com)

The American dream was a reality and its goddess was Grace, as in film after film her immaculate appearance mesmerised filmgoers across the globe. And in many movies of the time, the genius behind the looks was Edith Head, who in her years at Paramount and Universal Studios dressed nearly all the great actresses of the forties and fifties. In fact she worked with Kelly only twice - on Rear Window (1954) and To Catch a Thief (1955) but that was enough to fix in the world's imagination the idea of the elegant, coolly-knowing, high-class broad that her name still conjures today. Her appearance was perfect but she always undermined it by an ironic sense of humour, especially in sex. The trouble with A Single Man and I Am Love is the fact that there is not a hint of irony or self-mockery in either.

When you take yourself too seriously you stop producing something that keeps the viewers' attention and becomes as boring as a flick through a glossy magazine – and as quickly forgotten.

www.colinmcdowell.com

www.assarahseesit.com

Tuesday, 20 April 2010

Giles Deacon: Off to Ungaro?


Picture source: My Fashion Life


Vogue.com this morning is reporting rumours that Giles Deacon has been approached to take over at Ungaro. That gives me pause for thought. It would be awful to see one of the most loved designers in London, and surely one of the most charming anywhere, get his fingers burned.

Ungaro has been in trouble for some time. Indeed, one could argue that its troubles began when the founder himself stopped designing. Emanuel Ungaro had such a strong personality and distinctive fashion approach that, as is also the case with Pucci, it has proved difficult to modernize the label. Giambattista Valli had some success, but Vincent Darre and Peter Dundas both came and went too quickly to have any lasting effect. The house has lost its way. But that still doesn't explain the ill-considered decision to hire Lindsay Lohan as "artistic adviser" to work with Estrella Archs.

It seems that Ungaro is so unsure of its direction that it no longer has faith in its designers. The Lohan debacle did enormous harm to its credibility as a serious fashion label. What it also proved is that no-one designs clothes better than trained designers. They don't need input from celebrities, accountants, the family of the founder, the woman on reception, or any of the other tinkerers who seem to get involved in the creative process at some houses.

That's the challenge facing whoever takes over at Ungaro. They have to move the label forward and for that they must be given control. It was rumoured in Paris before Christmas that Matthew Williamson had been offered the job and had turned it down because he felt that Lohan had too much influence on the creative process. Now it seems that Giles may be about to take on one of fashion's poisoned chalices. If that's the case, then good luck!

Monday, 19 April 2010

A Single Man, I Am Love: A New Film Genre?

Fashion is about surface. That's why it is easy to understand. It has no interior monologue.

It strikes me that we have a new manifestation of fashion surface standing between us and reality: films that seem to have as their main point an emphasis on appearance above all else. Flowers, buildings and, especially, clothes are lovingly portrayed: I begin to wonder if we are on the verge of a whole new genre that could be called The Fashion Film - not a film about fashion, but a film made with the same surface obsessions that occupy fashion magazines and their stylists and art directors.

A Single Man
by fashion supremo Tom Ford was praised for its perfect but very mannered mis en scene, in which every shot seemed to have been contrived to have the unreal glamour and high-gloss perfection of a publicity campaign for a men's cologne. Now we have the film I Am Love by Tilda Swinton (another fashion figure in many ways), which again seems to elevate the photography way above the realities of plot and acting, as if it had been styled rather than directed. It is beautiful to watch but in a very seventies way. What makes me think we may be on the verge of a new visual approach is the praise both of these films have received from visually aware movers and shakers, both in and out of the fashion loop.

Are we going back to the seventies, when films like Elvira Madigan, Bo Widerberg's story of doomed love, ravished our visual senses with blurred close-ups of plants and insects as a means of ravishing our spiritual senses? That movie was criticised for suffering from the 'Swedish flaw of tastefulness' - for which read triteness.

Is the fashion film doomed to be as coldly perfect as the average fashion shoot? Does the medium have to be the message?

Reflections on Christian Dior

I've been reading up on Dior in the sunshine over the weekend (while also wondering how the volcanic cloud must be impacting on Planet Fashion, where it always seems like a quarter of the people are in the air at any one time).

Dior's past rang two bells. One was a tea I had with Joan Burstein, owner of Browns, at her beautiful Hampstead home in the delightfully named Vale of Heath, which has a view to die for. The City in the distance looked like Camelot in the late afternoon sun. I was there to take tea - a gracious occasion with this most elegant of women - and to interview Joan about the fortieth anniversary of Browns coming up this year. Mrs B told me how exciting it was in 1947 for a young woman just married, as she was then, to be able to dress in Dior's New Look, which was unveiled that same year - even though the fabric needed for the huge skirts was way beyond the coupons allowed in those days of post-war rationing. But Joan's new husband sold fabrics, so.... It was the beginning of her love affair with clothes that has lasted for over forty years with her shop in South Molton Street.

The other thing that occurred to me was how much the influence of a couturier prevails years after he has gone. I am spending quite a bit if time at Dior in Paris researching a book. The atmosphere is still very Dior, even though Christian Dior himself died in 1957. Soft grey was his favourite colour - because he was a great anglophile and it reminded him of England - and it is still the colour of Dior decoration. He loved big armchairs painted white with grey cushions - and they are still there too. I remember a famous story about a young fashion artist in the fifties who went to the Dior shownroom to draw some clothes for her magazine. Dior was the grandest fashion house in Paris, so she was very nervous. As she waited for the first model to appear, she unscrewed the top of her black Indian ink. Her shaking hands dropped the bottle and to her horror the black stain spread across the pale grey fitted carpet.

Don't you just burn for her, even fifty years later?

Tuesday, 13 April 2010

Male and Female Fashion Divide

I've been thinking about the recent poll in The Radio Times that came up with a discrepancy between men and women in their choice of favourite female screen actresses. In a survey of 2,000 readers, most women chose Audrey Hepburn as Holly Golightly in Breakfast at Tiffany's while the masculine choice was Ursula Andress in the first Bond film, Dr No, in 1962. Apart from what this tells us about the likely age of the readers who took part – Breakfast at Tiffany's is only a year earlier than the Bond movie – it shows the great gap between sex and glamour that dominated fashion in the fifties and sixties. Nice girls didn't; confident women did. Women wanted to be the gamine young lady; men wanted the sexy vamp.

Such a survey carried out with younger men and women would almost certainly have a much closer result in that young women and men tend to admire the same icons, whether it is Angelina Jolie or Scarlett Johansson. Which makes me wonder - not for the first time, even in this blog - if the sexes are drawing closer in taste and therefore fashion than ever before. Certainly, their lifestyles are very much more similar than in the past and so are their attitudes to freedom and sex. The pill, the changes in laws concerning sexual freedoms, behaviour and beliefs have increasingly revealed that women like the male lifestyle, even if men are at this point only beginning to come to terms with the female element in their sexuality. No more hunter-gatherer, weaver and cook divisions, in Western society at least.

I hate to use the word unisex but I wonder if Courreges and Cardin were not on to something valid for the future with their fashion statements in the sixties, even though they were laughed at or simply ignored at the time. At a time when female fashion is desperately trying to grind every last ounce out of styles popular in the recent past, and when menswear is almost totally static, maybe it is time for a little more creative cross-over to kick-start creativity again. We could start by asking what dress is actually for in a modern context.

Monday, 12 April 2010

Buying Chanel in Rue Cambon

One of the nicest ways to spend a day is in helping somebody else to spend money, so they say. And I think it may well be true, having done so in Paris a couple of days ago with a friend who asked me to take her to the holy-of-holies, the Chanel boutique at 31 rue Cambon. Mission: to help her choose a classic Chanel suit, something she has wanted for a long time.

As we popped out of the French end of the Channel Tunnel, the conversation turned to Chanel - and likely prices. My friend had decided on couture. A quick call to the London Chanel office and she thought of couture no more! The basic, standard cost of a couture Chanel suit is apparently around £30,000. 'It can go up much higher, of course, depending on the embroidery', the voice at the other end of the line cooed emolliently. So my friend, a businesswoman and highly pragmatic, did a quick bit of refocusing.

We arrived at the shop – all cream carpet, chrome and mirrors, with black-suited guards placed at strategic points – browsed the racks and at the exactly appropriate psychological moment when we had established our right to be in such grand surroundings, at least to our own satisfaction, a vendeuse glided up as if by magic. She had probably been watching us on closed circuit TV, deciding whether or not we were the real deal or just time-wasting browsers. Although my friend looked very elegant and even soignee, I am sure my beloved old duffel coat and cords probably threw the watchers a bit. But not for long.

As gently and unobtrusively as Mother Teresa, we were taken in hand and gently prepared for the kill. It felt a little bit like a Wagyu steer being massaged with beer to soften it up ready to be a Kobe steak: nice at the time but deadly in the end. My fiend is half my age, so the vendeuse (calling her a saleswoman would be as inappropriate as referring to Jensen Button as a guy who likes driving) assumed that it would be my credit card and included me in everything. Of course, I was slowly – and oh, so gently – cast adrift as 'not wanted on voyage' as it became apparent where the financial power actually lay.

Ninety minutes later, we were drinking a glass of champagne (on the house) whilst my friend's credit card was being processed for a bill just slightly over £10,000. For that giddy sum she had bought a Chanel tweed suit (not couture), a black Chanel jacket and a Chanel tweed sleeveless dress. All of them were classics … as were the black shopping bags. The stiff black Chanel version carries not only one of the world's most prestigious names but, at this level, is actually decorated with a famous white Chanel gardenia.

Over lunch, we agreed that we had not been shopping but, rather, performing in a one-act play in which we were briefly the stars, the vendeuse the director, and the author none other than Mademoiselle Coco herself. And there were at least six other plays being performed around us at the same time. No wonder they don't give discounts – as if anybody would dare to ask!

Malcolm McLaren and Vivienne Westwood

When the history of the cultural development of the last fifty years is written, will there be a mention of Malcolm McLaren? And how much? A chapter? A paragraph? A sentence? Or a footnote?

My view is that it will probably be the last. Reading the obituaries makes me realise that his own creative achievements were very slight; his talent was in enabling others to achieve rather larger things. He was a catalyst, not a creator; a Max Clifford rather than a Diaghilev; a fixer more than an originator. His antecedents were the fly-boy and the spiv, guys who would sell you anything and had the patter to convince you to buy, if you gave them enough time. More importantly, he had the self-belief that convinced him that every idea he had was automatically a good one. And he persuaded a lot of people he was right.

The most important thing in McLaren's expression of his own creativity was his well-known association with Vivienne Westwood, to whom he was the fairy godmother whose magic wand (or was it the Prince Charming kiss?) transformed her ambitions if not her creativity. When she was with him, she assumed the same raffish cockiness and embraced the enthusiasm he felt for shattering 'the system' and pretending to be an anarchist. In fact McLaren was behaving like a cultural barrow boy. He was happy to compromise and conform in order to sell his wares (pre-eminently the Sex Pistols and Westwood, and later hip-hop) not on ideological grounds but on the traditional capitalist principle that the only thing that matters is finding a way to convince the punters to buy (it's revealing that Glenn Matlock of the Sex Pistols says that McLaren was never really interested in the music, and that others report that most of the records he actually owned were of show tunes). His methods were the traditional ones of shocking the timid and exciting the inexperienced.

Vivienne Westwood survived the break-up with her Svengali and, once free of his influence, blossomed with a creative strength that he could never have matched. Her triumphs over the past twenty-odd years have served to demonstrate just what a minnow her one-time creative support actually was by comparison. More idealistic and principled, although just as intellectually eclectic, she has soared like an eagle on the currents of her own convictions to become a serious figure in a field still considered by many as trivial. He, left behind like an eager little sparrow, popped up occasionally - and, to me, each appearance seemed sadly more trivial than the last.

Wednesday, 7 April 2010

Fashion Fringe: Weekly Update

So, the general election campaign is underway – and so is this year's FF@CG search for a new designer. Since we made the announcement that John Galliano is going to chair and judge Fashion Fringe for the next two years our website has had 228,000 hits and more than 1,300 application forms have been downloaded. The closing date for applications is April 30th and I am hoping that from such large numbers we will be able to give John a good shortlist from which to choose the finalists and then the eventual winner, who receives £100,000 to start a business.

I can't help you win FF@CG – the final decision will be John's alone – but I can help you not to lose before you even start. I hope that we have made it clear that we are not looking for fantasy but for flair; not craziness but originality; not costume but entirely new forms of cutting and shaping that can be used as the basis for looks that can eventually be worn at high-street level. We don't want to see hundreds of outfits only suitable for Lady Gaga. As John, Hussein Chalayan and Vivienne Westwood have shown – not forgetting Rick Owen, Helmut Lang, Azzadine Alaia, Rei Kawakubo and Junya Watanabe – great clothes with real ideas come from a philosophy … and young designers can't start figuring what theirs is soon enough. Otherwise they become, not leaders, but followers; part of the flock that spews out of colleges around the world every year and has no affect on fashion at all.

So, to potential applicants I would give this advice: Remember what the job of a leading designer actually is and study the approaches that put the ones listed above where they are today.

www.colinmcdowell.com
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Tuesday, 6 April 2010

Erdem: What's Next?

All of us at Fashion Fringe @ Covent Garden are thrilled with last week's announcement that the first British Fashion Council Vogue Designer Fashion Fund award has gone to Erdem, who won our second Fashion Fringe competition in 2005. Since then, it has been gratifying to follow his progress not only as a designer but also as a fashion businessman growing his own label with a single-minded sense of purpose. The injection of £200,000 that the award will give his business will enable this talented and ambitious young designer to really develop a business plan to enable him to survive over the next few years.

If 'survive' seems a rather apocalyptic word in this context, it actually isn't. It may seem paradoxical, but it is when fashion careers are in their third or fourth year, with a degree of sales success and press loyalty behind them, that they are at their most vulnerable. It is then that possible cracks begin to show and serious questions are asked. Is this designer a one-trick pony, doing the same thing over and over? Is he only a scrabbler after the new thing without any firm design base of his own? Has he got the staying power that will eventually truly reward the loyalty of press, stores and customers? These awkward questions demand answers when a fashion business is at the delicate point that Erdem has reached. As nearly all questions and cavils can be answered by money and the opportunity it brings, I have no doubt at all the Erdem will use this award to take his talents to increasingly higher points in the years to come – and I look forward to enjoying it.

Platform Shoes: A Fashion Fixture?

When something in high fashion is out, it isn't just out, it is damned-to-perdition out to such an extent that nobody can bear to think about it a moment longer. In normal worlds that would be considered a sign of shallowness, but not with fashionistas. Look at how quickly the grotesque shoes of last year have bitten the dust. No regrets, no mourning, no sentimental looking back.…



Or so we might hope. But there is a nagging thought in the back of my mind that says,'Wait and see'. It is over twenty years since Vivienne Westwood first showed her platform soles and 7 inch heels to great applause and laughter from audiences who never dreamed that such extremes could have a life away from the catwalk and be actually worn in all seriousness by women who were not supermodels. But it happened … and I am just wondering how long these shoes will be in eclipse before they return and join denim and jeans as perennial fashions that most women have in their closets, to be worn not when fashion says but when a woman feels like it.

If we were talking about men, the answer would be 'never'. But then again, something as grotesquely dangerous and uncomfortable would never have become a male fashion in the first place. Women are much more inclined to put up with pain and discomfort than men would ever be, as long as they are part of the coolest, latest fashion. As a fashion editor who is known as London's greatest shoe fetishist once told her husband, 'You just don't get it and you never will because you are not a woman. They are my blisters and bunions, my backache and sore ankles, not yours. So just shut up. You are a man and couldn't possibly understand how important fashion is to women!'

Monday, 5 April 2010

In Milan With Dolce & Gabbana

The hangman's knock, traditionally just before dawn, was replaced by a strident alarm ring to start my long day in and out of Milan in order to interview Dolce & Gabbana for The Sunday Times Style. But this time it was slightly different. This was an interview to camera, ready for the Style website that will start in May. So it seemed that it might be worth travelling for eight hours for one hour of chat.

And, of course, it was. Just to be in the baroque scarlet and leopard-skin room furnished with imposing 19th-century Sicilian furniture and lots of large, sloppy dogs was worth any early call for its tongue-in-cheek high-camp kitsch, quite apart from a heavy gilt frame containing a black bra and a red rose that I found strangely compelling. Operatic is the word for this stage-set of a room, which is referred to in D&G parlance as "the Office".

But it was the Boys, as Stefano Gabbana and Domenico Dolce are always called, who were the real enchantment. Sitting close together, their body language and the way they included each other in every answer, both by gesture and comment, made it clear that this partnership, despite the fact that they now go their own ways sexually, is still the love relationship that began so long ago when they first met as young men. Stefano, tall, angular and voluble; Domenico, smaller, more considered and less dramatic. Together, they spun a fine story of their work, pleasures, problems and triumphs. I wish all hours went as quickly. As you'll be able to see for yourself in the early summer.

Monday, 29 March 2010

Photographers, Models and Exploitation

It must seem a bit rich to many people that a model has accused a photographer of exploitation, but it has happened.

The photographer Terry Richardson has blogged that he is really hurt to have been falsely accused of 'insensitivity and misconduct' by the model Rie Rasmussen.

The view of the man in the street would presumably be that models make the decision as to how far they will go in a photographic session and the photographer decides how far he will ask them to go. End of story … if the playing field was level.

But it rarely is. Many models at the beginning of their careers are young, insecure and possibly even virginal. Photographers are some of the very few men in fashion who might be straight. And certainly there are predators among them, wishing not just to sleep with models but also in their photographs to patronise and possibly debase them. And their allies in this are the people who should be protecting models: the agents, stylists and editors who work with them.

And I am sure that many do offer protection but, in the desperate efforts to be 'edgy' and shocking that most of these people seem to feel are essential for commercial success, others seem to inch closer to blatant titillation almost daily. Nudes on the covers of fashion and lifestyle magazines are the cheapest form of selling through sensationalism, and yet they succeed; simulated highly sexual scenarios – a genre introduced by Tom Ford at Gucci several years ago – do the same for top brands through their advertising campaigns.

Revealingly, the main culprits are the not-yet-household names (and probably never likely to be) in photography and the titles that will never have the general clout of Vogue, Harpers or Elle. In other words, the ones that try to keep afloat by inventing a type of 'cool' that speaks only to the young, few of whom can afford the magazines or the clothes they feature and would probably find few opportunities to wear them.

I often feel that fashion has become an incestuous maze of crazed and immature imaginations trying to grab attention by being naughty. I certainly know that the stylists, editors and photographers who create these pictures live their lives well removed from the things they promulgate. And that doesn't just give credibility to the accusations of exploitation; in the way it patronises, it robs anything they produce of any claims that could be made for its creative value.

Wednesday, 24 March 2010

Designers and the Press: Lessons from the Past

This morning I've been reading the answers to questionnaires I sent out to the top designers as part of a piece I am doing for 10 Magazine. The idea's very simple. Ten designers get ten identical questions and send me their answers. No interview; no extra queries to elucidate their answers. Just them, their thoughts and an e-mail back to me. The results are fascinating: they each reveal their thinking by their choice of question to elaborate on.

I am always amazed at how accessible designers make themselves and how they are – in all but a few cases – prepared to be honest and speak the truth. I am conscious, of course, that cynics will say that the questionnaire is immediately handed over to a PA or PR to answer, with the designers only signing it off at the end. That could be true, but designers tend to have egos far too large to let anybody else to speak for them, no matter how close that person might be. They are also aware of how important any reference to them or their attitudes is these days, in whatever form of media. And I include blogging and Twitter, for which most designers have a healthy respect (tinged, I suspect, with a little fear of a medium whose power is still not entirely understood by many).

I can't help wondering what Chanel, Vionnet, Dior or Balenciaga would have felt about the 'open access' game that designers now have to play, no matter how private their private thoughts still remain. I think we know what Balenciaga, who hated the press and for a few seasons actually banned them all from his shows, would think. He rarely if ever talked to journalists, believing that making clothes for his customers was a sacred bond to be discussed with nobody but the woman concerned. Of course, that could happen naturally in the days of couture when fashion was an individual pleasure with customers and designer working together in shared knowledge and taste.

Now, of course, designing clothes is no more personal than designing cars or screwdrivers. The designer has no interchange with the woman who buys what he designs. Balenciaga would have thought that that made the whole process so impersonal as to be pointless, but I can't help feeling that the other three, all of whom were highly commercial, would love questionnaires … especially the in-your-face women – Chanel and Vionnet, both so tough their lineage could probably be traced to Attila the Hun or Ghengis Khan.

Dior (a more subtle and gentle self-publicist, but with a very healthy ego) would have been more diffident but certainly would have said his piece. After all, he is one of the few designers from the fifties who wrote a (ghosted) biography and put his name to a dictionary of fashion, as well as lecturing and giving interviews at a time when the old guard thought such things shockingly vulgar and commercial. Dior really understood the value of publicity and, like Vionnet and Chanel, realised that the individual relationships of traditional fashion could not survive the expansion of markets and customer types.

All three were correct, of course. Now the individual relationship is not between customers and designers but between customers and those who bring clothes to their attention (the press) and those who exemplify their dreams and wishes (stars and celebs in the front row).

But I still think that Balenciaga had something of worth in his attitude – something we should try to recapture. Maybe the current lot at that once-austere house think so too, and feel that banning the editor of French Vogue from shows is sending a positive message. It is, although for me not the one their crazed press office imagines. But as the history of many fashion houses shows, designers come and they go, taking their foolish minions with them – whilst good editors tend to have very long working lives...